Sunday, May 04, 2008

Weekly Meditations: Is. 36-37 (part 1)

In our previous study, we have seen how the wicked King Ahaz was providentially saved from the strong combined armies of Israel (Ephraim) and Syria. There is a significant parallel episode of an invasion which occurred in the time of his son King Hezekiah, and it would be good to compare and contrast the two invasions so that we can learn from them. We would therefore thus jump to Is. 36-37 where a record of this encounter is recorded for us.

In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them. And the king of Assyria sent the Rabshakeh from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem, with a great army. And he stood by the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer's Field. And there came out to him Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder.

And the Rabshakeh said to them, “Say to Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria: On what do you rest this trust of yours? Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war? In whom do you now trust, that you have rebelled against me? Behold, you are trusting in Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him. But if you say to me, “We trust in the Lord our God,” is it not he whose high places and altars Hezekiah has removed, saying to Judah and to Jerusalem, “You shall worship before this altar”? Come now, make a wager with my master the king of Assyria: I will give you two thousand horses, if you are able on your part to set riders on them. How then can you repulse a single captain among the least of my master's servants, when you trust in Egypt for chariots and for horsemen? Moreover, is it without the Lord that I have come up against this land to destroy it? The Lord said to me, Go up against this land and destroy it.’”

Then Eliakim, Shebna, and Joah said to the Rabshakeh, “Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, for we understand it. Do not speak to us in the language of Judah within the hearing of the people who are on the wall.” But the Rabshakeh said, “Has my master sent me to speak these words to your master and to you, and not to the men sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and drink their own urine?”

Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in the language of Judah: “Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria! Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you. Do not let Hezekiah make you trust in the Lord by saying, “The Lord will surely deliver us. This city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.” Do not listen to Hezekiah. For thus says the king of Assyria: Make your peace with me and come out to me. Then each one of you will eat of his own vine, and each one of his own fig tree, and each one of you will drink the water of his own cistern, until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards. Beware lest Hezekiah mislead you by saying, “The Lord will deliver us.” Has any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who among all the gods of these lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?’”

But they were silent and answered him not a word, for the king's command was, “Do not answer him.” Then Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder, came to Hezekiah with their clothes torn, and told him the words of the Rabshakeh. (Is. 36)

As soon as King Hezekiah heard it, he tore his clothes and covered himself with sackcloth and went into the house of the Lord. And he sent Eliakim, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests, covered with sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah the son of Amoz. They said to him, “Thus says Hezekiah, ‘This day is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to the point of birth, and there is no strength to bring them forth. It may be that the Lord your God will hear the words of the Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has sent to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words that the Lord your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.’”

When the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah, Isaiah said to them, “Say to your master, ‘Thus says the Lord: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the young men of the king of Assyria have reviled me. Behold, I will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land, and I will make him fall by the sword in his own land.’”

The Rabshakeh returned, and found the king of Assyria fighting against Libnah, for he had heard that the king had left Lachish. Now the king heard concerning Tirhakah king of Cush, “He has set out to fight against you.” And when he heard it, he sent messengers to Hezekiah, saying, “Thus shall you speak to Hezekiah king of Judah: ‘Do not let your God in whom you trust deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria. Behold, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands, devoting them to destruction. And shall you be delivered? Have the gods of the nations delivered them, the nations that my fathers destroyed, Gozan, Haran, Rezeph, and the people of Eden who were in Telassar? Where is the king of Hamath, the king of Arpad, the king of the city of Sepharvaim, the king of Hena, or the king of Ivvah?’”

Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers, and read it; and Hezekiah went up to the house of the Lord, and spread it before the Lord. And Hezekiah prayed to the Lord: “O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth. Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; and hear all the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God. Truly, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste all the nations and their lands, and have cast their gods into the fire. For they were no gods, but the work of men's hands, wood and stone. Therefore they were destroyed. So now, O Lord our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone are the Lord.”

Then Isaiah the son of Amoz sent to Hezekiah, saying, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Because you have prayed to me concerning Sennacherib king of Assyria, this is the word that the Lord has spoken concerning him:

“‘She despises you, she scorns you—the virgin daughter of Zion; she wags her head behind you—the daughter of Jerusalem.

“‘Whom have you mocked and reviled? Against whom have you raised your voice and lifted your eyes to the heights? Against the Holy One of Israel! By your servants you have mocked the Lord, and you have said, With my many chariots I have gone up the heights of the mountains, to the far recesses of Lebanon, to cut down its tallest cedars, its choicest cypresses, to come to its remotest height, its most fruitful forest. I dug wells and drank waters, to dry up with the sole of my foot all the streams of Egypt.

“‘Have you not heard that I determined it long ago? I planned from days of old what now I bring to pass, that you should make fortified cities crash into heaps of ruins, while their inhabitants, shorn of strength, are dismayed and confounded, and have become like plants of the field and like tender grass, like grass on the housetops, blighted before it is grown.

“‘I know your sitting down and your going out and coming in, and your raging against me. Because you have raged against me and your complacency has come to my ears, I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth, and I will turn you back on the way by which you came.’

“And this shall be the sign for you: this year you shall eat what grows of itself, and in the second year what springs from that. Then in the third year sow and reap, and plant vineyards, and eat their fruit. And the surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward and bear fruit upward. For out of Jerusalem shall go a remnant, and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

“Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city or shoot an arrow there or come before it with a shield or cast up a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, declares the Lord. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.”

And the angel of the Lord went out and struck down a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians. And when people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and returned home and lived at Nineveh. And as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, Adrammelech and Sharezer, his sons, struck him down with the sword. And after they escaped into the land of Ararat, Esarhaddon his son reigned in his place. (Is. 37)

The period is the time of King Hezekiah, the godly son of the ungodly King Ahaz, who had commanded revival and reformation within the godless nation he inherited, Judah (2 Chron. 29-31) by cleansing the temple, re-instituting temple worship and re-organizing the Levitical priesthood. Furthermore, Hezekiah revived the celebration of the Passover, of which its celebration was neglected since the time of Solomon (2 Chron. 30:26), an indication of the downward spiral Judah had been on since the time of Rehoboam.

Yet, in the world stage, things were stirring. The rising and powerful Assyrian Empire had grown even larger and more powerful, having defeated their neighbors and brought them under subjugation. Both Damascus and Samaria; Syria and Israel/Ephraim had been defeated, their peoples deported, and their territories absorbed into the ruthless Assyrian Empire during the time of Ahaz, Hezekiah's father. Down south, Egypt with it powerful chariot army was striving also to expand its power and influence, and Judah was in the middle of Assyria and Egypt. In this growing power struggle, Assyria decided to attempt to annex Judah, which was more symphathetic to Egypt (Is. 36:6) than it was to Assyria.

It was to this effect that King Sennacherib of Assyria sent in his army against Judah, rejecting Hezekiah's offer of peace and tribute after initially accepting it (2 Kings 18:14-16), as Hezekiah was not willing to side with Assyria against Egypt. If Judah with its reaonsably strong army from the time of King Uzziah struggled to contain the armies of Syria and Ephraim, what chance did King Hezekiah and the by now weakened army of Judah have against the conqueror of both Syria and Ephraim? Soon, Sennacherib conquered the fortified cities of Judah (2 Kings 18:13; Is. 36:1) and marched against Jerusalem with a mighty army which militarily was more than sufficient to wipe Jerusalem off the face of the map.

Sennacherib decided to send his general (a Rabshakeh — high-ranking general) to advise the Jews to surrender. Militarily, they were outnumbered, outwitted, and outgunned. There was totally no way for them to win this battle physically, not to mention turning the tide against the invasion of the rest of the country. With such overwhelming odds in their favor, the Rabshakeh was very confident of defeating Jerusalem and adding the territory of Judah to the Assyrian Empire. Having stationed his troops outside the city in a show of force, the Rabshakeh taunted the Jews and seek to demoralize them. First, he sneered at Hezekiah's strategy (or rather, lack of it) as 'mere words' (36: 5), calling Hezekiah to account for rebelling against Assyria by not submitting and siding with them as his father King Ahaz had done. With the power struggle between Assyria and Egypt going on, the Rabshakeh mocked Hezekiah's bid for autonomy as leaning on their rival Egypt, which they likened to the 'broken reed of a staff'; weak and cutting those who lean on it for support.

Verse 7 is a verse which makes sense only when we realize that Israel's original sin was not atheism or a total rejection of YHWH, but syncretism. The reformation instituted by Hezekiah resulted in the destruction of the alters and high places where syncretism was practiced; where the Jews worshipped YHWH with pagan rituals and pagan images, even identifying Him with the false gods like Baal, Asheroth or Molech. To pagans like the Assyrians, however, they cannot understand the worship of a God without the use of idols and the idea that God cannot be worshipped as they please was an alien idea to them. What Hezekiah and the Jews see as refomation and purity of worship seem to them rank hypocrisy and a consolidation of religious power under one temple; one 'roof'. The Rabshakeh thus mock Judah as being a hypocrite who (to them at least) 'desecrates and destroys God's alters and high places yet still piously invoke the help of God' in this war.

With a view of all the gods of the nations (exceptig theirs of course) being mere idols and icons that unite that nation, the Assyrian general blaspheme God by invoking His name and asserting that it is the LORD who told him to attack Judah (36:10), thus making it seem as if YHWH is on their side and has abadoned Judah. In the eyes of the Rabshakeh, it might have been, since YHWH is to them the same as any other false tribal deity, which we shall see later.

To attempt to further weaken their morale, the Rabshakeh promises them 2000 horses for their surrender, where previously they have been purchasing horses from Egypt (Egypt influences Judah in this case more by trade rather than militarily) (36:8). It is of course certain that Assyria could fulfil this promise materially, though whether they would truly do so is another story altogether. Nevertheless, this was a carrot meant to entice Judah to surrender and place itself under Assyrian rule, which unfortunately for the Assyrians didn't work.

In an attempt to bypass the king and his officials and incite the citizens to rebel against them, the Rabshakeh spoke in Hebrew (36: 11), which made the king's officials upset and they thus called on him to speak in Aramaic (the language of Syria), which they understood while the common people didn't. The Rabshakeh responded by taunting them as saying that the common people have a say as they would suffer from this siege; in "eating their own dung and drinking their own urine" (36:12). He then proclaim in a loud voice a call for the citizens of Jerusalem to revolt against King Hezekiah, saying that he cannot save them whereas if they would but surrender to Assyria they would be able to 'enjoy the good life' (36:14-17). He follower through with taunting Hezekiah's belief in God's deliverance from them, asking the Jews to consider that no other gods have delivered their peoples from the army of the Assyrians. Most certainly, the gods of Hamath and Amad, Sepharvaim, even Samaria did not deliver their adherents from the military might of the Assyrian Empire, so who is this God and how can He do what the other gods could not do (36:18-20)?

Chapter 36 of Isaiah closes with the testimony of the loyalty of the people of Judah, who obeyed Hezekiah in not responding to the taunts and provocations of the Rebshekah (36:21). Hezekiah's officias meanwhile tore thier clothers in grief and convey the taunts of the Rabshakeh to King Hezekiah (36:22).

[to be continued]

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